May 3

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The Gate

The Rev. Josephine Robertson
All Saints, Bellevue
May 3rd 2020, the 4th Sunday of Easter

This is one of those readings where our lectionary style of reading scripture can trip us up.

Our ancient ancestors did not split the scriptures into neat chapter and verse for easy reference, and then split them up into distinct story chunks to read over a three year cycle. They read long sections of book at a time. Sometimes going until the lamp light ran out, the sun set, or the reader’s voice wore out.

So our ancient ancestors, hearing today’s lesson wouldn’t be hearing it as a distinct chunk but as the logical and dramatic conclusion to what had come before. They would have heard story after story that showed who Jesus was:

The Son of God, the Word made flesh; and that meant someone who fed people extravagantly with wine in almost embarrassing amounts, and overflowing baskets of bread and fish. Who healed all those in need and reknit communities.

And to put these stories of generous overflowing in context here is some geeky background I collected this week:

One of the images the Roman emperors liked to use for themselves is that of good shepherd. It fit their image of benevolent rulers who brought civilization and prosperity to all their conquered territories.

But despite the Imperial propaganda Jesus’ hearers would also have been aware that they sure as heck weren’t the sheep the Emperor was so carefully tending. Because despite what we learned in school about the glory of the Roman Empire, 70 – 80 of the population was food insecure.[1]

For the majority of those living within the Roman empire the green pastures and still waters Jesus describes would have sounded very appealing, and very foreign.

It would be easy to shake our heads and be grateful that we live in the modern world, that we aren’t like Jesus’ audience. But Jesus’ world and ours are much alike.

In 2018 just under 12% of US households were considered food insecure which might sound pretty good, except that 49% of Americans that year were living paycheck to paycheck (and the numbers haven’t gotten better). We’ve discovered just how easy it is to miss a paycheck (or four.) In Kirkland the number of families who relied on KIN for food during school breaks doubled in the month of March. (April’s numbers aren’t in yet.)

But the virus has taught us that our health is common, like it or not. It has revealed that we in fact rely on one another. None of us is safe if any of us is unwell and we are more connected than we knew. Like it or not we’re one flock and we’d better be careful about the shepherd we follow. But this is where Jesus uses an absolutely brilliant rhetorical tool in today’s Gospel.

Because we’re all in the same sheepfold together. It is all there is.

Jesus starts out with familiar images of good shepherds and sheep he ends this parable on a twist, because by the end Jesus is the gate.

It is a brilliant turn of phrase, and a wise teaching for the emerging community to whom John wrote. Because any community must chose how to model itself, on what to base its structure. And John pretty soundly dismisses the church modeling itself on the empire.

We too must chose how we will order our world and John’s parable today reminds us that we are in this together. Like it or not there is only one sheep fold. That when we come out and go in our choices impact others. Whether it is how we order our political lives, our economy, or how we care for this one planetary sheep fold we have there’s only one sheep fold.

Jesus makes himself the way we go in and out, which for people trying to stop a pandemic by sheltering at home as pretty obvious corollaries. Jesus reminds us that what we do impacts others. We who feel healthy could be contagious, how we behave matters; because there is only one sheep fold.

Jesus casts himself as the gate to be sure we understand; he isn’t borrowing the good shepherd imagery of Rome to make himself into a new emperor: he is usurping it. There is no being part of this Jesus thing without being willing to enter into the person of Jesus, his identity and example.

It is a life of extravagant giving, healing, and comfort. Of caring for the other sheep with us in that fold.

It is a story that John’s community needed to hear as they made decisions about how they would order their lives together, who they would model themselves on, and how they understood their relationship with God.

And we find ourselves in our own unsettled and liminal time of choosing. We are being asked to decide how we will make our choices, what values will drive us. Will we be so desperate to return to our old normal that we sacrifice others to do it?

Or as our Presiding Bishop has asked us to do: will we die to self, give up our comfort, our familiar, and do the harder thing to protect all the sheep?

God invites us to imagine a different kind of normal. Something very different than any Empire of this world, directly opposed to such empires in fact. John’s community, and the rest of the early Christians would chose a model of community so opposed to Roman rule that they, like Jesus, became enemies of the state.

But what they’d found was so life changing, so soul quenching that when hacked apart with swords, fed to lions, or crucified they refused to give up, refused to turn their backs on the gate, and the green pastures of the Good Shepherd Jesus.

I don’t know what our new normal might look like, but I do know this sheepfold is all we have, and we are all in this together. I do know that Jesus asks us to model our going out, and our coming in, on him.

And I do know that Jesus, who is our shepherd, and our gate will never abandon us or leave us.

[1] Warren Carter, “Jesus the Good Shepherd: John 10 as Political Rhetoric,” in Come and Read: Interpretive Approaches to the Gospel of John, ed. Alicia Myers and Lindsey S. Jodrey (Lanham, MD: Fortress Academic, 2020), 104


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